Three years away from home, three hours North of Quito and three weeks living here in rural Ecuador, I find myself crouched in my bedroom collecting beetles for dinner as I listen to the synchronized squeals of the guinea pigs and my 2 year old brother. Much has happened since I first arrived weeks ago, and while I can’t write it all I will attempt to paint a small picture of the big changes taking place in my life here in Arrayanes Ecuador.
Our village Arrayanes is the type of place where very few foreigners find themselves. It’s a small village accessed by foot on the hand-layen roads that wind themselves through the volcanic cabradas. It’s the type of place where two worlds collide, a mixing of western television and traditionally dressed woman working the fields. Where Kitchwa and Spanish slide into each other as if it were one language. It’s the type of place where you can trade fresh tomatoes for tostados at the Sunday market and buses are filled with papas and papayas and puppies. It’s the type of place where stories of ancestors are shared alongside laughter as you prepare dinner together. Where “randi randi”, the concept of giving to one another means every neighbour is both friend and family. It’s the type of place where the volcanoes Cotacachi and Ibarra greet you in the morning as the strong Andean sun melts away the cloudy mist.
However it is also the type of place where poverty persists. The type of place where my host mom will make 12 purses for a dollar and where you work from 4am to 10 pm at night. Where a warm cup of Colada may be all there is for dinner. Where the indigenous people must work hard to reclaim a history, a language, a sense of self-pride after hundreds of years of oppression.
While to an outsider the small unfinished house I live in with tarp roofing and a small gas stove may seem cold and uninviting, inside it’s a place of strength and love. Inside is a young family: my mom Iida is 22 and my father Santiago is 24. Their kids are two months and two years old. They are an incredibly hardworking couple that makes their living by raising “cuys” (Guinea pigs), selling tortillas and handcrafts when they can. They’re also a kind and enthusiastic couple, willing and excited to share as much of their culture with me as possible.
My host dad who is particularly interested in starting up a bicycle tour company that shows tourists the real Ecuador including all the surrounding villages and has appointed me as his head advisor/cultural-taste-tester/extra hands and has set up a different job every day of the week for me. On Mondays I work up at the volcanic lake, Cuicocha, managing tourists and helping clean the beautiful trails that cross through the park. On Tuesdays I help at home, cleaning out the cuys, sowing seeds and learning how to cook traditional meals like Mote and Sopa de papas. Wednesdays I journey up the mountain to a small village named St Nicholas, where a jolly man with a big heart named Segundo (or Second) laughs at my Kitchwa as he teaches me the handicrafts that support his family. Thursdays I work on an organic farm, learning about natural pesticides, medicinal plants and the dreams of the 8 siblings that sow alongside me. On Fridays, I have language lessons and god knows I need the help because coming to Ecuador with 5 Spanish phrases in my pocket has mean that the learning curve is steep. I am constantly exhausted with the effort it takes to listen, understand and communicate. But little by little it is getting better. As for my weekends, they change from week to week. This weekend for example I went to an large assembly where the future of the region of Cotacachi was discussed and agreements between all parties were made surrounding issues of mining, tourism, corruption and Indigenous rights.
Each day is a new adventure, bringing its own challenges and lessons. I think when people imagine a gap-year, they think of it as a break. Admittedly I had hope it’d be so in the beginning. However, I have learned from the 5:30 am wake ups, the feeling of sweat sticking to the blisters in my boots, I have learned from the feeling of being totally lost, and alone, from the ice-cold bucket showers and the exhaustion of trying to live in two foreign languages that this is far from the case. However, I have also come to realize with gratitude that it is the challenging parts that teach us the most, that pushes us to grow, that connect us to others and reminds us we are really living. So as I look towards the next 7 months, I remind myself to embrace every part of the journey, to appreciate all that this experience is giving me and give back as much as I am capable of to those around me.